Several rounds of ethnic clashes and a string of bombings were not enough to dampen the spirits of Abdurrahim El-Keib, Libya’s outgoing Prime Minister. “We are seeing the birth of a new Libya that is as beautiful as the waves of the sea,” he told TIME.
In the wide-ranging interview, Keib said that recent bombings that struck the country’s three largest cities — including the latest attack on Tripoli — were the work not of jihadists but of loyalists of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi — with help from neighboring countries. He said he was not overly concerned by the loyalists. “They are a nuisance and they are living in a state of denial,” he said.
Rather than focusing on the actions of a disgruntled few, Keib spoke of Libya’s “social mosaic.” Though approximately 90% of the country’s residents are Arabs, a number of ethnic groups populate the fringes of the desert and the coastal mountain chain west of Tripoli. “I am hoping that someday all of these groups will come out with their own folk dances, dancing in the streets.” He wants to extend this social mosaic to Libyans Gaddafi expelled when he took power in 1969. “When I was growing up, we had Italians and Jews in my neighborhood. We had churches there, synagogues. It was part of our cultural heritage.”
He pointed to the country’s recent elections — in which a secular coalition beat a number of Islamist parties — as proof that Libya is on track to become the newest member of the world’s democratic community. (The new parliament was installed on Thursday and would get to work on picking a new Prime Minister; no party holds an outright majority.) “We are making progress,” he said, as a procession of aides shuffled in and out of his hotel suite. Though it was 3 a.m., Keib looked like he was coming down from an afternoon sugar rush. During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and spend much of the night feasting, shopping and conducting business.
And Keib was all business as he rambled off a list of the successes of the interim government he ran since the fall of Gaddafi’s regime last October. He detailed the $6 billion in contracts the National Transitional Council (NTC) has signed with foreign firms and the $650 million it allocated for reconstruction projects. He recounted efforts to enhance border security and reduce the smuggling of Libyan weapons that have reached jihadists from Mali to Gaza. “The road is tough, but there is some light ahead,” he said.
The former University of Alabama professor of electrical engineering hardly looks like the Prime Minister of a country just emerging from an eight-month revolution. But behind the 62-year-old’s affable smile lies a decades-long Gaddafi dissident. During the revolution, Keib worked from Tunisia to finance the opposition. And though he has led the country’s government, he revealed he “would be happy to collect garbage for Libya if needed.”
Today, as Libya tries to rebuild and reconcile with its past, Keib is as pragmatic as he is optimistic. He does not shy away from discussing the challenges Libya faces. Chief among them is the need to disarm the 100,000 militiamen who spearheaded the drive to overthrow Gaddafi by either integrating them into the security forces or finding them jobs. A budding federalist movement in the country’s eastern province of Cyrenaica has the support of Libyans long neglected by a distant central government and frustrated with the NTC’s inability to deliver on its promises.
Disbanding the myriad militias that roam the country’s streets with heavy weapons and control highway checkpoints consistently ranks at the top of Libyans’ grievances. But Keib advocates a piecemeal approach to dealing with the problem. “We need to bring them in as individuals and not brigades. There is a process here and we can’t move too fast,” he said. But a recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted that the interim government has been slow to move on the issue, saying that “the NTC has thus far been unable and unwilling to disarm these militias, integrate their elite fighters into formal military brigades or demobilize those wishing to return to civilian life.”
As for the movement for regional autonomy, Keib said, “This is democracy in practice,” referring to the Cyrenaicans, who have increasingly clamored for the return of the loose federation that prevailed in Libya between 1951 and ’63, when the country’s three provinces controlled revenue disbursement. “In Texas we have people like that, right?” he asked, referring to the secession movement in the Lone Star State.
Keib suggested the best way to defuse the burgeoning crisis was to increase decentralization by empowering municipalities and provinces, and moving a number of government companies to marginalized regions. “People must feel that they are a part of the whole process and they are getting their share,” he explained.
His decentralized vision sounds much like the one Gaddafi tried and failed to implement in the late 1980s. In the wake of a 1986 American bombing, a vulnerable Gaddafi sought to spread out his government, bent on preventing a repeat of the devastating attack that paralyzed the capital. But after a few years, he returned the ministries back to Tripoli, when he realized that little work could be accomplished with institutions spread out over the vast desert country. Some analysts believe instituting a decentralized model today would undermine the fragile Libyan state rather than strengthening peripheral support. “It would weaken the central government, making it difficult to improve security and secure the nation’s borders,” explained Jason Pack, a researcher of Libyan history at Cambridge University.
Keib does not discount his country’s problems, but he remains optimistic. “Libya is going through a lot of very difficult times now,” he said as he headed out for his last meal before sunrise. “But overall it’s O.K. I guarantee you it will be much better in the near future.”